Artist shares her skills, finds home on St. He­lena

The Beaufort Gazette (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY STEPHEN FASTENAU sfas­te­nau@is­land­packet.com

A lot can be lost in the bus­tle of a work­ing Low­coun­try dock. Ma­chines whir.

Fish and shrimp are off­loaded, cleaned, sorted and loaded on re­frig­er­ated box trucks in Beau­fort.

Ev­ery­one is fo­cused on their pur­pose.

Monique de La­Tour had dropped by the docks at Sea Ea­gle Mar­ket on St. He­lena Is­land be­fore and of­fered to help out. Then re­cently she saw an op­por­tu­nity in some­thing oth­ers didn’t — in un­used oyster bags with the com­pany’s logo.

She pitched an idea to owner Craig Reaves and was soon cut­ting and sewing the bags into re­us­able bags for dis­play in the Sea Ea­gle store in Beau­fort, just in time for a coun­ty­wide ban on sin­gle-use plas­tic bags.

She earned $9 for each bag, rep­re­sent­ing an hour’s work in each. The money was her first in weeks.

De La­Tour sleeps on a bright blue bus on her prop­erty off Sea Is­land Park­way not far from the pri­vate docks while wait­ing to ren­o­vate a small build­ing on the land into her home. She plans to even­tu­ally trans­form the bus into a mo­bile com­mu­nity ed­u­ca­tion cen­ter to share her knowl­edge of art and tex­tiles, ten­nis and swim­ming.

Her jour­ney to this place in­cludes her na­tive New Zealand, Ja­maica, Aus­tralia, New York City and a re­la­tion­ship with mu­si­cian and writer Gil Scott-Heron.

She saved for two years while liv­ing in her car in North Carolina to af­ford the land where she now lives. This is where the 54-year-old artist wants to be.

“So few peo­ple get that feel-

ing of ac­tual free­dom,” she said. “And I feel free.”

GROW­ING A GAME

De La­Tour and her twin sis­ter were born in New Zealand, one of two sets of twins and five girls then un­der 6 years old born to a sin­gle mother.

She was a na­tion­ally ranked ju­nior ten­nis player in her na­tive coun­try but quit the game and dropped out of high school af­ter a ten­nis coach tried to mo­lest her when she was 14, she said. The in­ci­dent led to a spi­ral that in­cluded crime and ju­ve­nile de­ten­tion.

She’s used her back­ground in the sport to vol­un­teer with ten­nis pro­grams in New York, North Carolina and now Beau­fort County.

In North Carolina, de La­Tour taught at a char­ter school and vol­un­teered at a city pool, paint­ing a mu­ral that told the story of African Amer­i­can his­tory in swim­ming.

She taught ten­nis for a lo­cal ten­nis club and de­signed cus­tom “Dirty South Ten­nis” T-shirts she thought would ap­peal to the teens.

She re­mains in touch with her stu­dents. One of them went on to join the ten­nis team at Howard Univer­sity.

Now De La­Tour vol­un­teers, help­ing coach a ju­nior ten­nis team on the courts at Beau­fort High School and has plans to grow the sport in her adopted com­mu­nity.

Two pub­lic ten­nis courts ex­ist at sep­a­rate parks on St. He­lena. A re­cent com­mu­nity event at Penn Cen­ter sought to share the sport with area chil­dren and a lo­cal pro­gram hopes to gen­er­ate enough in­ter­est on the is­land to even­tu­ally con­vince re­cre­ation of­fi­cials to build more courts.

“That’s our goal,” said Wayne Lil­ley, who is pres­i­dent of Pub­lic Ten­nis Inc., a Beau­fort County com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tion that ad­vo­cates and plans for build­ing and im­prov­ing pub­lic ten­nis fa­cil­i­ties. “And I know that’s Monique’s goal.”

HEAL­ING WORDS

With­out a high school de­gree and sup­port­ing her two young chil­dren as a young woman in Aus­tralia, de La­Tour earned ad­mit­tance to Royal Mel­bourne In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy on the strength of her art port­fo­lio.

She chose to fo­cus on tex­tiles, baf­fling ad­mis­sions of­fi­cials who thought her tal­ent was in print.

Weav­ing was a refuge when things were hec­tic at home, she replied.

De La­Tour first heard Gil Scott-Heron on a boom­box at a protest March in New Zealand. When he per­formed in Aus­tralia in 1995, she con­vinced his man­ager to show him some of her tex­tile de­signs in­spired by his mu­sic.

Scott-Heron — a poet, novelist, song­writer and per­former whose song “Win­ter in Amer­ica” was an an­them for many — was in­trigued, and the pair re­mained in touch. Scot­tHeron later asked de La­Tour to de­sign his book cov­ers.

She later moved to New York with the help of a cash prize from an art com­pe­ti­tion and lived with Scott-Heron for three years as his girl­friend be­fore they split over his ad­dic­tion to co­caine. Scott-Heron wrote con­stantly and talked of ideas he had for var­i­ous projects that could in­clude de La­Tour’s art, she said.

De La­Tour doc­u­mented the re­la­tion­ship with thou­sands of pho­to­graphs snapped at Scott-Heron’s re­quest be­cause of the para­noia caused by his drug use, she said. She is in the process of con­vert­ing all of the neg­a­tives to dig­i­tal im­ages at the St. He­lena library.

She co­op­er­ated with film­mak­ers work­ing to tell Scott-Heron’s story in an up­com­ing doc­u­men­tary and plans to even­tu­ally pub­lish a book of the pho­tos.

The money from the ven­tures could help re­store her house.

It was Scott-Heron who in­tro­duced de La­Tour to the Sea Is­lands of South Carolina by hav­ing her watch the ground­break­ing film “Daugh­ters of the Dust,” she said.

She be­lieves his mu­sic re­mains rel­e­vant.

“He had a vi­sion for a bet­ter Amer­ica and bet­ter world,” she said. “This coun­try needs to be healed, and he had heal­ing words.”

DRAWN TO ST. HE­LENA

Amidst the bus­tle of Sea Ea­gle Mar­ket at Vil­lage Creek, the white un­used oyster bags called to de La­Tour.

She had wan­dered down to the docks from her prop­erty less than a mile a way, in­tro­duced her­self and asked for ways to help.

“That’s kind of how it is some­times — we don’t know strangers and strangers don’t stay strangers long,” said Sea Ea­gle Mar­ket’s Craig Reaves. “They be­come part of the fam­ily.”

“Have you thought about what you’re go­ing to do when plas­tic bags are banned?” de La­Tour asked Reaves at one point.

He had planned to move to pa­per bags like ev­ery­one else.

De La­Tour sug­gested re-pur­pos­ing the oyster bags, which were al­ready adorned with the Sea Ea­gle name and phone num­ber. She told Reaves she could pro­duce each bag for $9, and they set­tled on an ini­tial batch of 20.

She stitches with a small por­ta­ble sewing ma­chine that isn’t ideal. But it fit in the back of her bike crate on trips to the St. He­lena library for elec­tric­ity be­fore some­one gave her a ve­hi­cle, a gold Nis­san Pathfinder, for free.

With a more ef­fi­cient ma­chine the bag process might go more quickly and the price drop. Reaves is sell­ing them for $14.99, but that could even­tu­ally come down a few bucks.

De La­Tour doesn’t want the bags to be­come a job. She told Reaves as much, of­fer­ing to teach the women who work at the docks how to pro­duce them.

De La­Tour vis­ited St. He­lena for the first time for a Gul­lah Geechee Sea Is­land Coali­tion con­fer­ence. She slept in a ham­mock on an ocean­front camp­site at Hunt­ing Is­land.

She kept re­turn­ing, drawn by the place that re­minded her of Ja­maica. It had the same sense of com­mu­nity, she said.

Lo­cal fish­er­men have taught her to fish, and she casts for whit­ing or sheepshead. Other times, they stop by her prop­erty af­ter a day on the wa­ter to drop off ex­tra fish or crabs.

Some­one taught her to throw a cast net, and she prac­ticed by sling­ing the net onto her road. One evening she waited on ev­ery­one else to leave the dock — em­bar­rassed for them to watch her first at­tempts.

At a St. He­lena cof­fee shop re­cently, she thumbed through her phone to find the video of what hap­pened next.

On her sec­ond throw, the net opened as it should and de La­Tour pulled a school of mullet from the creek.

She didn’t know what she had caught.

FU­TURE IN FAB­RIC

De La­Tour’s prop­erty on St. He­lena shows a com­mit­ment to reusing ma­te­rial.

A load of wood pal­lets from Reaves will be­come a perime­ter fence.

Haint blue wood from a for­mer gen­eral store on St. He­lena will be in­cor­po­rated into her fu­ture home.

Old shrimp nets are des­tined to cover cus­tom fur­ni­ture.

From the shel­ter of her build­ing, de La­Tour has painted signs pro­mot­ing the ten­nis pro­grams and oth­ers for Gul­lah Geechee tours. She has sewn dolls, dyed T-shirts and silk cloths and planted indigo.

Fab­ric is her pre­ferred ma­te­rial.

Sea Is­land Tex­tiles is what she is build­ing here. She reg­is­tered the name and spends days in the library de­vel­op­ing a web­site where she can sell her art.

A loom is stashed on her prop­erty. She can see what she wants her house to be­come, a place her grand­chil­dren can visit, with or­nate wood carved doors, and a large screen porch where she can weave in peace.

“I al­ways look sort of look a year ahead and a year be­hind — ‘Where was I a year ago and where am I this year? Am I where I was try­ing to be?” De La­Tour said.

“And I’m ab­so­lutely where I was try­ing to be.”

STEPHEN FASTENAU sfas­te­nau@beau­fortgazette.com

Monique de La­Tour sews a re­us­able bag from an oyster bag Wed­nes­day for Sea Ea­gle Mar­ket near the busi­ness dock on St. He­lena Is­land. De La­Tour, an artist, hopes to share some of her skills with the com­mu­nity.

STEPHEN FASTENAU sfas­te­nau@beau­fortgazette.com

Monique de La­Tour ex­am­ines silk she dyed with pieces of rust and hung to dry on her prop­erty on St. He­lena Is­land. The artist uses the dy­ing tech­nique for the silk and T-shirts, ty­ing the cloth to rusted me­tal and soak­ing it a tub of vine­gar and wa­ter in the sun.

MONIQUE DE LA­TOUR Sub­mit­ted

This T-shirt was de­signed by St. He­lena Is­land artist Monique de La­Tour when she worked with a youth ten­nis pro­gram in North Carolina. De La­Tour now vol­un­teers coach­ing ten­nis in Beau­fort County.

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